I've mentioned before that every year on my birthday I select a different theme for the year, something I need to cultivate or learn. I have found it so helpful to give myself and God a full year to really focus on a topic and work it through in my daily life. 30 was the Year of Love and Joy.
This sounds like such an easy theme, but I was raised by a Dad who is suspicious of Love and Joy and much more comfortable with suffering. Until this year I had never been able to shake the feeling that if I wasn't suffering I wasn't working hard enough.
Dad comes by these feeling honestly. He was born with a birth defect that took 13 years of surgeries and hospital stays to fix. Meanwhile, one of his three sisters had a bone disease that kept her in a body cast for nearly two years. His parents were working to pay the hospital bills and taking care of their other two kids and going back and forth in the hospital between him and his sister. He spent a lot of that time alone and in pain, a state that became, if not comfortable, at least familiar enough to become a habit. One of the biggest blessings and surprises this year has been that both my dad and I seem to be overcoming that mindset.
When I started this year I had an idea that it would be like a year-long party, a break from the more serious goals I had set for myself in my twenties. It was going to be a year free of all that work and worry and stress where I could finally just relax and enjoy the fruits of my labours. Naive, I know. God must have found that pretty funny.
The reality is that I've spent most of the last year held on the edge of suffering, forced everyday to actively choose love and joy. There was the fear of being told my baby (conceived on my birthday between the Year of Trust and the Year of Love and Joy) could have problems because of a complication with my pregnancy, the trust to know that I would and could handle that situation no matter how it turned out and the absolute joy of having a healthy, normal child.
We've had a year-long unemployment, which, while a little nerve wracking, has actually been a blessing that has allowed us so many amazing moments as a family and showed us the amazing support circle we are lucky to have. It's also given Zach the push he needed to go back to school to pursue the job he really loves.
Finally, there has been a huge change in my relationship with my dad. We've always been close, but this year there has been a shift of sorts. Dad has started on the path to becoming a 3rd Order Franciscan (a lay Franciscan) and has expended considerable effort in living a life of simplicity and service. He gives away huge chunks of his income to charity, volunteers every week and has joined several groups and committees at his church, the result of which is that he is finally breaking free of his loneliness and beginning to live a life that isn't centered on himself.
Every weekend he comes over and excitedly tells us about this project or that project, about what the Brothers of Peace are doing this week, or how he took a friend he volunteers with out to breakfast to cheer him up when he was laid off. Watching him find real, unadulterated love and joy after 60+ years of pain has been the most dramatic experience of this year.
The net result of this year has been so much better than I could have anticipated. Instead of a year long party I got a lasting lesson in how to find and cultivate love and joy that isn't dependent on perfect circumstances that will likely never arrive. I got a lesson in the power that real love and joy can have in transforming even the oldest and most deeply set scars. That is something I will use for the rest of my life. What a birthday gift!